Retracing my Grandfather’s Footstep on the Western Front

Retracing my Grandfather’s Footstep on the Western Front

By Sarah Barnhill

Sarah Rives Barnhill is the oldest grandchild of T.B. Greneker, Sr., and Gladys Rives Greneker, who lived at “Cherry Hill” on Wigfall St. for many years. Judge Greneker was a well-known figure in South Carolina legal and political circles, having served as a state senator and judge for the 13th Circuit.  Sarah was born in Edgefield but now lives in the U.S. Virgin Islands. (At a time when this newspaper is looking back at its 183 years, the staff offers this article as an anniversary gift for the reader’s edification and enjoyment.-Ed. Note)

 

When I started thinking about retracing my grandfather’s footsteps in the waning days of the First World War, I faced a challenge. I have wonderful memories of sitting next to him on the front porch at Cherry Hill as we poured over the two maps he brought back from the war, one showing the bloody area around Ypres—or “Wipers” as the doughboys called it, and one showing the entire western theater of war with a hand-drawn line marking the front as of August 7, 1918.   From family documents and letters,  I knew he interrupted his studies at Wofford College and enlisted in a month after the United States declared war on Germany in April of 1917.  But I didn’t know where the Army sent him or what division he was in.  All that knowledge went up in flames in 1978 when the Department of Defense archives in St. Louis that housed much of the personnel data from WWI burned to the ground.  My mother (Sis Greneker Barnhill, now a spry 91-year-old) couldn’t remember any of the military details except that he trained at Camp Sevier.

If you pay attention to roadside markers and know anything about Greenville, you will know that Camp Sevier was where Wade Hampton Boulevard is now.  Roads in that area, with names like Artillery and Magazine, are testament to what was once there.  The roadside marker gave me my first hint: he was with the 20th,  the 30th, or the 81st Division, all of which trained at Camp Sevier.

 

Camp Sevier roadside marker, Wade Hampton Blvd, Greenville

 

An Internet search told me that chances were his division was probably the 30th, made up of soldiers from North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.  It was nicknamed “Old Hickory” in a nod to Andrew Jackson.  It was sent to Europe not as part of the American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing, but as part of the British 2nd Army Corps, in which a large contingent of Australian troops also served.  I clearly remember the admiration and respect my grandfather had for the “Aussies,” who he said were the best of the fighting men. Beyond that, I had no details.

 

And then I met Wally Renfrew.  Wally belongs to that wonderful group of true eccentrics.  He makes his living buying and selling militaria, everything from Civil War buttons to Waffen SS daggers to Desert Storm fatigues.  He does not own a computer, never trolls the internet, and handles all correspondence the old-fashioned way, with a pen and a stamp.  I met him at a gun show two years ago.  Wally was at his booth in a far corner, under tattered military flags, reading a book.  On the off chance he might know something about the 30th Division, I approached him.

 

“Yep,” he said.  “Mustered at Camp Sevier.  Mostly North and South Carolina.  My granddaddy was in it, the 118thInfantry Regiment.  Bet your granddaddy was too.  Went to Belgium first, then France.”

 

So, through dumb luck and serendipity, I had my first lead.  Wally proceeded to send me xeroxed copies of relevant pages from a 1936 history of the 30th Division, with maps, orders and lists of engagements.  He also sent a list of the officers in the 30th Division.  And there he was—118th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company I:  2d Lieut. Thomas B. Greneker.  My grandfather.  Goose bumps swept over me.

Thanks to Wally, I was able to cobble together a fairly comprehensive timeline of my grandfather’s war experience.  He enlisted on May 11, 1917, trained at Camp Sevier, shipped out to England in May of 1918, and was sent immediately to the Ypres salient.  Thus the detailed map he came home with.  In August of 1918, the 118th was sent south to France, to the Somme, the area that had seen such a bloodbath two years earlier, when the British Army lost over 57,000 men in one day.

The area I had to cover is really a very small slice of northern France, in what was once known as Picardy.  I focused on a triangle, no more than 30 miles on its longest side, from Albert to Cambrai to St. Quentin approximately.  It is stunningly beautiful country, especially in the fall when the crops—mainly sugar beets and potatoes—are being harvested and the fields tilled.  The Lombardy poplars turn flame yellow and pheasants are everywhere.  The villages are neat and prosperous looking but not old, as you might expect in Europe.  So many were destroyed in the two world wars.

It is so hard to reconcile what you see today with the devastated killing fields of a century ago, after four years of shelling and gas, trenches and mud, and unimaginable carnage.  The fighting was so intense and so prolonged in such a small area that to this day over 40 tons of war materiel are found every year in the fields of northern France.  I found the mortar pictured (pg. ten) near a British cemetery in the area around Serre, which saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war. It was on the edge of a field that had just been plowed and was about 15 inches long and weighed about 12 pounds.

Mortar found near Serre

 

My first full day in France, Thursday, the 8th of November, I scouted out the area of Warloy-Baillon, a small village south of Arras.  I knew this was where my grandfather was on 11/11/1918 when the armistice was declared, and I wanted to be there too, exactly one hundred years later.  I found a newly plowed field with a farm road just on the outskirts of the village,  where one of Wally’s maps showed the 118th was encamped in November of 1918.  That’s where I planned to be, come Sunday, Armistice Day.

In this triangle that was my focus, the military cemeteries are so numerous that from one you can often see the next in the distance.  A “Sites of Remembrance Map” I picked up lists 87.  At the little village of Fricourt (population 540), there are three cemeteries, two British and one German.  The dead outnumber the living here by nearly 40 to 1.  The graveyards are ecumenical, with Christians, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus buried together.   I learned quickly to distinguish the various ones: the French have brown concrete crosses: the Germans, black or gray.  American graves are marked by white marble crosses or Stars of David.  The British used marble slabs, rounded at the top.  The British were the only ones to put the ages of the dead soldiers on the markers.  So, so many were nineteen or twenty.  The number of graves marked “Unknown” or “Known But to God” is staggering.

Another way to look at the sheer volume of war dead is this:  Think of the drive from Greenwood to Edgefield, about 30 miles.  In the Somme, it’s also about 30 miles from Arras to Peronne, in the middle of the triangle that was my focus.  And in the dirt of this small area are the bodies of nearly a million and half men.

One of numerous memorials to the sacrifices of the many horses, mules, dogs and carrier pigeons in WWI

The cemeteries and memorials, and the flags flying in every village, brought home to me the full force of the term world war.  Alongside the Americans and the Europeans were soldiers from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, north Africa, the Middle East, and India.  The list of the dead at the Newfoundland Memorial was so long I did not see how Newfoundland could have ever seen another generation.  I also began to understand why the British and the French do not tend to refer to the war as World War I.  To them, it was then and still is The Great War or Le Grande Guerre.

On my second full day, my goal was to retrace the steps of the 118th as it pushed east towards the Hindenburg Line, from Sept. 26 to 30, 1918.  Again, Wally Refrew’s maps were invaluable.  I knew my grandfather’s regiment had advanced to Villaret, a village only two miles from the strong German defenses of the Hindenburg Line that were protecting the St. Quentin Canal at Bellicourt.  Taking the canal would deprive the Germans of a significant strategic position.  I had hoped to be able to walk all the way from Villaret to Bellicourt, as my grandfather had, but a major four-line highway now cuts across those same fields.  I trekked as far as I could east of Villaret and had just turned to go back to the car when one of those things happens that is either fated or magical, or both.  A single fighter jet—French air force insignia clearly visible—roared low over my field, dipped its wing and banked, then disappeared.

The rational part of me said it was practice for the huge Armistice celebrations scheduled for Paris in two days, when the French air force would fly down the Champs Elysees spreading blue, white and red vapor trails.  But in this field, at exactly this moment?  Where’s the rationality in that?  So, there I was, in the middle of a muddy French potato field on a gray, bone-chilling day, jumping up and down, fists pumping, and tears streaming down my face.  A flyover for my grandfather.

West of Bellicourt, I found some of the deep trenches of the Hindenburg Line, no more than 100 feet from the canal itself.  Just in front of these trenches are shell craters, where Allied shells had fallen short of their mark.  On Sept. 29, 1918, following two days of heavy bombardment from British guns, the 118th advanced again, responsible for running barbed wire and establishing paths through the wire so British and Australian troops could move forward.  The fighting was chaotic and the casualties high, but by 7:30 that morning, the canal had been taken.  Again, the dichotomy was hard to absorb. It was a beautiful fall day, with the sun streaming through golden leaves, quiet, no one around but me.  A universe away from what had happened a hundred years ago.

 

St. Quentin Canal,  German trenches to the west of the canal

After the battle of St. Quentin, the 118th continued to push eastward as the Germans retreated.  Over the course of two weeks, until October 17, they pushed east, a distance of only 15 miles.  The fighting was constant and bloody as they took the villages of San Souplet and St. Martin Riviere and crossed the Le Selle River.  For heroic action during these weeks of October, six members of the 118th Infantry would be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, more than any other regiment during the First World War.

I knew that the farthest east my grandfather got was near the village of Bazuel, which sits on a low ridge surrounded by lush, beautiful countryside.  Again, using Wally’s maps, I found an area southwest of Bazuel where I think the 118th had camped.  Today it’s a quiet meadow, a slow stream bordering one side.  A couple of French cows watched me take pictures, unimpressed with whatever I was doing.

Then, on October 21, 1918, the British relieved the entire 30th Division and my grandfather’s regiment was moved back west, to the village of Warloy-Baillon.  The war for him was essentially over.

 

 

American Military Cemetery at Bony.  Many men from the 30th Division are buried here, including several Medal of Honor recipients.

Warloy-Baillon is a nondescript village.  I found only one building that looked old, a timbered house with sloping roof, all else having been destroyed by one of the three wars that raged in this area from 1870 to 1945.  There are no shops or restaurants and no one ever seemed to be at the village equivalent of a townhall, where I was hoping to get information about the 30th Division.  On this rainy Sunday, November 11, the only signs of life were a farmer on a tractor and two hunters walking through the fields, bird dogs in tow.

By the time I got to my field, the rain was steady, those lovely autumn days gone. But I stood there in the rain, with my grandfather’s photos, and looked over the fields around Warloy.  At ten minutes to 11, the bells in the village church started to ring.  I read aloud Wilfred Owens’ “Anthem for Doomed Youth.”  (Full poem and tribute to be found after 2/20/19 at the end of this article at edgefieldadvertiser.com)

And then it was 11 o’clock, one hundred years to the minute when the war to end all wars was over and it was, at last, all quiet on the western front.

In the spring of 1919, the 118th Infantry Regiment sailed from Le Havre to Charleston and was disbanded.  The doughboys, now seasoned veterans, made their way back to farms and towns across the South.  My grandfather finished his college degree and came home to Cedar Grove, the old family place on the road to Greenwood.  When he married my grandmother, a pretty young teacher from Aiken, they moved into town, to Wigfall St., the street where they would spend the  rest of their married lives.  My grandfather practiced law, became a state senator and a circuit judge for South Carolina.  He was still practicing law at age eighty-one in 1977 when he was struck and killed by a car in front of his law office on Buncombe St.

But in those fields of Belgium and France are nearly two million men who did not come home, including over 100,000 Americans. My pilgrimage for my grandfather was a small price to pay in their honor.

 

 

***Photo 7 and caption

Field near Warloy-Baillon, France, and photos of 2nd Lt. Thomas Benjamin Greneker, 1896-1977

 

 

ANTHEM FOR DOOMED YOUTH

 

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?

— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.

Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle

Can patter out their hasty orisons.

No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;

Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—

The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;

And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?

Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes

Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.

The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;

Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,

And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

 

–Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

 

Note: Owen was killed on Nov. 4, 1918, a week before the war ended, at Sambre, one of the last battles of the war.  It was less than five miles from where my grandfather was when his regiment was relieved.

 

 

 

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